November 12, 2015

John Pelissier wants to be very clear: This isn’t about him. 

It’s about a group of Catholic friends who, through hard work and dedication, built a lively, active church from the ground up in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

“I don’t need any glory or anything,” he said. “There was a team of us.”

But Pelissier was, and at age 90 still is, a big part of the story. 

Pelissier was born and raised in France as an atheist. He came to the Catholic Church at age 17 when he was baptized after being inspired by a professor. Shortly after World War II he came to the United States with his wife, Emma.

But this story starts after Pelissier retired to rural Amherst County, Virginia.  

There was just one problem: There was no Catholic church in this county of about 32,000.

“There was no Catholic presence at all,” he said. “There were a few Catholics here and there, but they would all go to Church in neighboring counties.”

In the 1990s, when Pelissier heard that Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond was coming to Amherst, a group arranged to have the bishop celebrate Mass at the local Anglican church. Moved by the gesture, the bishop offered to help build a Catholic church. He said that the group could be called the Catholic Community of Amherst and that they could open a bank account. “It was the birth,” Pelissier said. 

Pelissier had received a book from a Presbyterian minister on how to build a church, which specifically recommended choosing “a visible and accessible location.”

The group found a piece of land in the middle of town, “within a block of the one traffic light that we have,” he said. It was perfect.

They started raising money and working with an architect on the building design of what was to be St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church. Catholic Extension gave $50,000 to the project. 

As construction on the Amherst church began in October 2003, volunteers signed up. 

“We were all retired people, so we called ourselves the Over the Hill Gang,” he said. “We had all the time in the world to work on the church.”

Shortly after the foundation was laid, there was a delay. The framer wouldn’t be available for several weeks, so they decided to try their hands at construction. 

“We got started building the frame, and then we kept going,” he said. The group was mistaken at least once for a contracting crew.

“We were just a bunch of volunteers, few of us were very skilled,” he said. “Particularly me, I was the least qualified of the group.”

They worked through the winter.

“We had a wonderful time, and we got to become very close friends,” he said. “There was a team of us, and nobody was doing it for our own glory.” 

Instead, the group was working for the glory of God.

“It’s incredible what laypeople can do if given a chance,” he said. 

In May 2004 the church was completed. The group had contributed about two-thirds of the labor, including most of the carpentry.

The project is now done, but the bonds haven’t severed. Several years ago Pelissier moved to a retirement community in Lynchburg. Each week one member of the Over the Hill Gang picks him up and makes the two-hour roundtrip to Mass at St. Francis of Assisi in Amherst. 

“I love what Catholic Extension does to build faith communities,” he said. “This work is so important to our whole Catholic Church.”

Pelissier has donated to Catholic Extension for more than 25 years. In the spirit of paying it forward, he recently donated money to help build two more churches, one in Texas and another in Kentucky. Click the button below to join him in supporting future building projects. 

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